Otto Funk The 19th Century’s Great Chicago Library Thief

Otto Funk The Chicago Library Thief

As a book lover myself I was drawn to the story of Otto Funk, the most prolific book thief in Chicago history.  As most great stories, I had come across this one by sheer happenstance as I was researching an unrelated story concerning the Chicago Public Library.  It contains all the elements of a great play, obsession, mystery, tragedy and at times a darkly comedic tinge.  I could find very little written about Otto Funk except for an article by David Hoyt which was published in the Summer 2012 edition of the University of Chicago magazine, “The Core”. 

The more I researched Funk, the more I wanted to know about his origins and motivations.  He immigrated to Chicago with his family at a time in which cheap labor was needed during the rebuilding of the city after the fire of 1871.  While the labor was needed, the influx of laborers, especially from Germany, were not necessarily given a hearty welcome and were for the most part mistrusted by the management and local government.  Keep in mind that Chicago’s Haymarket Affair had not occurred yet but was right around the corner.

Otto Funk’s Beginnings

Otto Funk (a.k.a. John A. Talbut and Otto Boehme) was born to Anton Funk and Maria Boehme as Anton Joseph Funk on 15 September 1855 in Putzig, West Prussia (now the city of Puck, Poland).   Otto had three sisters living in Chicago, Bertha Funk who was married to Gustav Topel, Franciska Funk who was married to Anton Kortas and a Mrs. Agnes Funk who was married to Joseph Dudzik.  In the 1880 Census Anton Funk, who was 71 years of age and widowed, was living with his niece Bertha who was 16 years of age.  They were living at 16 Fox Street which was just west of the Goose Island area of Chicago and considered one of the poorest and most disadvantaged areas in Chicago at the time.  An 1881 Chicago Tribune article described some of the properties close to the area and specifically the No. 47 Blackhawk Street building where Funk stated that his sister, Bertha Topel was living in 1885.

‘Here is another nice place, No. 47 Blackhawk Street, owned by John Gapa.  A tenement of five rooms, occupied by six families, consisting of twenty-nine persons.  The tenants are huddled together in rooms 20×16 feet.  Eight human beings exist in the cellar.  It is as might be supposed a damnable place even for a brute to endure life in.  There is eight square feet of room to eight persons.  When it rains the water runs in over the floor.  The walls and ceiling are unplastered, while the boards are nasty with grease and dirt.’

While many thought of Otto Funk as insane or a “crank”, as was the language of the time, it is impressive that somehow John A. Talbot as he later became known, pulled himself out of that life that his family found themselves in.   He had a propensity for learning and a literal obsession with books.

The Book Thievery Begins

In 1878 Otto was arrested for stealing 200 valuable books from dealer Alex Klappenbach at No. 48 Dearborn Street, 1,300 volumes from Jansen McClurg & Co. and quite a few from bookseller L. D. Ingersoll in Arcade Court.  He was held to a Grand Jury where he was found to be insane and the case was dismissed.  It was in this case that the first clue to his original birth name of Anton was revealed by a handwritten note in the case file.

Funk started to use the name of John A. Talbot or Talbut shortly after his first arrest for book theft.  He thought it necessary to change his name mainly because the Funk name was tarnished due to his recent larceny arrest and he also wanted to choose a name that was not quite so ethnic sounding (although he still spoke with a Polish/German accent).  It is under John A. Talbot that he was accepted at the University of Chicago in 1879 where he excelled in all his studies and graduated as class Salutatorian.  He delivered the class oration on June 13, 1882, at 2 pm to a graduating class of 259 students (242 male and 27 female).

While at the University of Chicago, he first roomed at 3410 Vernon Avenue and then at the Old Baptist Seminary Building across from the University on Rhodes Avenue. 

The University of Chicago that Funk graduated from was the financially burdened predecessor of the current University of Chicago which stands in Chicago’s Hyde Park.  The current University of Chicago opened its doors in 1892 funded in large part by John D. Rockefeller.   The University of Funk’s time was founded in 1857 by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas as a Baptist mission school and was bounded by College Place (currently 33rd Place) to the north, Cottage Grove Avenue to the east, Rhodes Avenue to the west and University Place which was about one block north of what is now 35th Street.  From 1861 until 1864, the University was directly to the south of Chicago’s Prisoner of War Camp, Camp Douglas.  Aptly named because the Douglas family loaned, not donated, the land to the U.S. Military during the Civil War. 

While there at the University he befriended Carter Harrison Jr. the son of then current mayor Carter Harrison Sr.  Mayor Harrison was impressed by his fanaticism toward study and willingness to take whatever jobs he could find (lamp-lighting or newspaper delivery) in order to help finance his schooling.  Mayor Harrison actually wrote a letter of recommendation for Funk when he learned that Funk was contemplating going into the United States Signal Service (The early National Weather Service). 

The first University of Chicago was funded in part by Illinois U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas on land that Douglas loaned

Funk Applies to the Chicago Public Library

In March of 1882 Funk applied to the Chicago Library for the position of night and Sunday reading room attendant and brought with him letters of recommendation from Mayor Harrison, the president and one professor of the University of Chicago, and one from a prominent physician.  Unfortunately, there were no openings at the time and Funk took a very short lived teaching position in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  He returned in the fall of 1883 and started working in the library reading room on September 4, 1883 and enrolled in the Chicago Medical College.   The Chicago Public Library during Funk’s tenure was a temporary location that existed inside of an empty water tower in the center of the temporary city hall.  The location was given the nickname “The Rookery” because of the large number of pigeons that would commonly roost there.  Later, in 1888, Daniel Burnham and John Root would create the still extant Rookery Building on the same site.  Funk seemed to have severe issues with social cues and relationships and was released from his position at the library on October 25, 1884 for “incivility to visitors”.

Bust of William E. Poole in the Special Collections Room of the Harold Washington Library

Following the loss of his position at the library, he was allowed privileges that the average library patron was not given due to his previous employment at the library.  Chicago Librarian William E. Poole became suspicious when a large number of medical books were unaccounted for, and Funk was a medical student.   It was when an attendant mentioned seeing Funk with a large number of medical books that he was approached, and a few were found on his person.  He was arrested for the theft on Wednesday, January 21, 1885 and taken to the Harrison Street Police Station.

After Funk was arrested roughly one hundred books were found in his room at 1800 Wasbash Avenue and later over two thousand were brought in from a barn that belonged to Funk’s brother-in-law, Joseph Dudzik (incorrectly reported as August Liebrich) who lived at 3068 Lyman Street.

Funk Neary Kills John Bonfield

As the Chicago police were unloading the thousands of volumes of stolen books at the new city hall, one officer noticed a plain pine box and suspected it might contain explosives.  Detective John Bonfield, who would later gain national attention regarding Chicago’s Haymarket Riots, brought the device outside to the empty space between the city hall and county building.  A chemist conducted an examination of the box and Bonfield after about 20 minutes very gingerly opened the box which contained a loaded and cocked .32 caliber pistol which was connected to a crank that if activated would have ignited the 10 to 12 bars of dynamite which could have taken with it many lives and most of the building.

Funk was brought immediately to the Chief’s office and asked about the explosives.  He simply said that he was a student of chemistry and that it was merely an experiment on his part and that he didn’t mean to do harm to anyone.

Funk was eventually released on a $2,000 bond supplied by his brothers-in-law, Anton Kortas and Joseph Dudzik.  Kortas posted the property that he owned at 666 Dickson Street and Dudzik posted the property he owned at 47 Blackhawk.  Funk was a free man pending an April 15th court date which he did not show up for.  Consequently, his family, who were struggling financially, forfeited the $2,000 that they had posted for Funk’s bond.

Funk Impersonates a Doctor

At roughly the same time that he was being “let go” by the library he was also under investigation by the Illinois State Board of Health for violations of the Medical Practice Act.

The board received a complaint that a “J.A. Talbot” was practicing medicine at 1915 State Street in Chicago and was in violation of the Medical Practice Act.  It was found that he was a student attending lectures at the Chicago Medical College and claimed to be practicing only as the assistant of Dr. Otto Wegner.  Dr. Wegner and Talbot were both warned that Talbot could only assist under the supervision of Dr. Wegner and that he was not allowed to practice on his own.

Less than one month later, Talbot opened another office at 2896 Archer Avenue again in Dr. Wegner’s name but this time claimed to be Dr. Talbot-Astley and according to his business card, which was printed in both German and English,  was “the great London physician and surgeon of the St. Thomas Hospital in London”.  He also claimed to be a member of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons and stated that he had been induced to establish the Illinois State Dispensary in Chicago.  According to the flyers found in his room, Dr. Wegner was now his assistant and the Illinois State Dispensary in Chicago was chartered for “the successful and scientific treatment of all chronic nervous, eye and ear, throat and chest diseases, gout, rheumatism, asthma, consumption, kidney and liver complaints, disorders of the blood, stomach, and bowels and especially all diseases of women and children; also skin diseases, private diseases, and all wounds, sprains, and dislocations.

The Illinois State Dispensary had no existence and was not chartered as claimed.  As the board was putting together the evidence in the case, they became aware that their target’s real name was Otto Funk, and based on his recent arrest for book thievery and very possible mental instability the investigation was abandoned.

Funk’s Plan for Revenge

It wouldn’t be long before the authorities were on the hunt for Funk again but this time for something quite different from a book theft.  Shortly before midnight on Monday, April 20, 1885, the son of Samuel Osborne who was Janitor at the University of Chicago returned from the city and found two men digging a trench at the base of the astronomical tower.  He asked a few questions, and one man gave him evasive answers while the other continued his work as though this sort of thing happened every day. 

He left the two men digging to wake his father, Janitor Osborne.  Professors Hough, Howe and Riggs accompanied the janitor and confronted the two men.  One made a hasty retreat and could be seen meeting up with a third man at the corner of Cottage Grove Avenue and College Place.  One man remained and was questioned by the janitor and faculty.  

The man spoke only German and when questioned in German he related that he was hired for $2 to conduct the digging by a man who drove him there in a wagon.  He was taken to the Cottage Grove Avenue police station and was questioned by detectives.

The following day a Chicago Tribune reporter visited the university and made some disturbing discoveries.  Connected to where the men were digging was a trench two- and one-half feet wide by four feet deep over which was a trap door made of multiple layers of planks and weighted with a layer of concrete.  The doors were designed to be opened from the inside using a pull and pin mechanism which would cause the doors to fall inward from the center. 

Later in the day, students made another discovery of another trench with frames designed to support a future set of trap doors.   This network was about 200 feet from the tower and likely was the location where the man who was arrested was trying to connect to.  When the trenches were not being worked on in the middle of the night they were covered with dirt and cinder in a way to disguise their existence. 

Meanwhile the police were convinced that the man in custody, who gave his name as Ladislau Kiedzik, was innocent in any wrongdoing.  Kiedzik lived at 410 Elston Avenue and claimed to be a Prussian.  He told investigators that he was approached by a man who promised to pay him $2 for one night of digging.  Since Kiedzik was out of work and late on his rent he jumped at the opportunity.

Galusha Anderson, President of the university, had no idea who would want to dig these trenches and why and saw no reason why anyone would want to damage the university if it was a sabotage plan.  Professor Hough who taught astronomy jokingly thought that someone might have wanted to send him up to examine the stars without a telescope.

Other faculty members and students had a strange feeling that the culprit could be none other than former student, Otto Funk.  Several students claimed to have seen Funk on the university grounds the previous Saturday night.  While there seemed to be some agreement between faculty and students that Funk was responsible, the question of motive was something of debate.

Funk was arrested on Wednesday, April 22nd not only on suspicion but on evidence that was unreported to the public.  A blue work shirt was found among the excavating tools and a handkerchief was found in one of the pockets bearing the embroidered name of J.A. Talbot.

While many of the faculty believed, especially since an explosive boobytrap was found among his stash of stolen books, that Funk intended to do damage to his former school, many of the students had a different theory.

In fact, the mathematics professor, Alonzo J. Howe, believed that based on his knowledge of Funk (Talbot as he knew him) his intent was to murder a young woman who had rejected his affections.  The woman’s name was Jennie Isetta Gibson and she was the daughter of a conductor for the Illinois Central Railroad as well as a member of the junior class at the University of Chicago.  After viewing the layout of the trap that was set, it became obvious to him that Funk planned on taking a position near the observation tower where it would have been difficult to detect him but would give him a good overview of the grounds and could pull the traps doors from a distance and would be able to close them quickly and remotely thereby giving him complete control over his victim.

The reporter who interviewed Professor Howe was escorted back to Funk’s cell, number 108 at the County Jail.  Funk, while considered insane by many, was a decent-looking young man with blond hair, blue eyes, a small blond beard, and a stocky build.  He spoke with an air of supremacy and had a strong German accent.  Funk had been pacing in his cell and relating the details of his creation of this grand “experiment” on the university grounds.  He took much pride in the fact that he could hide the creation from the university for weeks.  What he couldn’t tell investigators was his motive.  In his own words, he stated that divulging the motive would compromise the results of the experiment.

The reporter overheard Funk’s glib attitude toward investigators and interjected.  He told Funk that investigators were putting together a case against him and were planning to charge him with attempted murder!  Funk’s attitude and talkativeness took on a completely different tone.  He became more careful with his words and told the reporter multiple times that the only thing they could charge him with was simple trespass.  They would never be able to charge him with attempted murder.

Funk appeared in court in front of Justice Foote on the charge of malicious mischief.  Appearing with him was the Polish man named Kiedzik who Funk had hired to help him with his work.  Present in the courtroom were Lt. Bedell, Detectives Kipley and Treharne of the Cottage Grove Station, Professor of Mathematics Howe, a group of students from the University of Chicago as well as the father of Ms. Gibson who was the target of Funk’s affection, and revenge.   It came out that Funk had at one time constructed a wooden plank sidewalk specifically to keep Ms. Gibson’s feet dry as she walked from the Rhodes Street entrance to her classes.  He was so proud of the sidewalk that he gave an hour-long oration at Church regarding his deed.  When Funk took the stand, he explained to Justice Foote that he was merely hired by a man named Edwards who runs a floral shop to dig irrigation ditches for the University.  He could not adequately explain why the University would need irrigation ditches or why the work had to be completed at night without the University administration’s knowledge.  Police had hunted for Edwards but reached the conclusion that Edwards was a fictional character.  After hearing Funk’s testimony Justice Foote announced, “too much learning hath made him mad!”

The justice held him on a bond of $500 that Funk was unable to post.

The authorities and reporters spoke to Funk’s brother-in-law, Joseph Dudzik, who stated that he didn’t know anything about Funk’s plan at the university but did know that he had attempted to hire men from the local area.    He also mentioned that Funk had contacted him about posting bail but he refused to do so since the bond he posted for Funk during his last arrest was forfeited due to his latest arrest.  He did believe that Funk was troubled mentally, was referred to in the neighborhood as, “The Doctor”, and that he is not responsible for his actions.  His brother-in-law Anton Kortas who was living with Funk and Funk’s father, Anton at 666 Dickson Street also believed that Funk was “not right” mentally.

Reporters for the Tribune spoke to Ms. Izetta Jennie Gibson and asked her if she believed that Funk had intended her any harm.  Ms. Gibson did not believe Funk to be crazy but that he did have a very vengeful side if he felt as if he was wronged. She had been frightened for her safety for some time.  She never gave Funk a reason to believe that she was at all interested in him and rejected all his advances although very politely.  “He has no reason to hate me, except I consistently discouraged his attention from first to last, and, when they became unbearable, used plain language as any young woman would have done under the circumstances.”  It was this final rejection that set Funk off.

In June of 1885, Otto Funk was acquitted of all criminal charges but was deemed insane and sentenced to the Elgin State Mental Hospital.  He would soon grow tired of the accommodations.

The Elgin State Mental Hospital as Otto Funk would have known it.

Funk’s Escape from the Asylum

On Wednesday, September 15, 1885, Funk decided that he was not insane and left the Elgin Asylum through an open window in his apartment.  Funk lived in an apartment on the first floor and in the front of the Elgin establishment. There were no bars on the window, so it was easy for him to slip out undetected.

Before he left, he penned a letter to Dr. Ed Kilbourne, the superintendent of Elgin facility, in which he gave notice of his intent to leave the asylum and that he did not know where he was going to go.

Funk left at about 8:00pm that Wednesday night wearing a nice fitting but faded brown frock coat, a brown hat and plaid pants.  He carried with him a rusty gold-plated watch-chain and a scarf pin.

He kept off the beaten path and walked inside the fences that bordered the road to Chicago.  He walked until daybreak and saw a road sign that indicated he was 17 miles from Chicago.  He had nothing to eat all night and rested for a few hours at a plantation that was in the area.  After a few hours rest he continued to Chicago and arrived later that Thursday morning.

He rested for a few hours at a relative’s residence and then headed straight to the offices of his attorney, Frank D. Turner who was a principal at the firm of Turner & Buttner at 81 South Clark Street.

While at his attorney’s office, he gave Mr. Turner the particulars of his escape, demanded that he was sane and that he would rather go to jail than return to the asylum. He asked Mr. Turner if he would contact Dr. Kilbourne for him and Turner refused.   A reporter hunted Funk down at Turner’s office after he heard that Funk was in town.  The reporter arrived at Turner’s office at about 4:00p.m. and remarked that Funk did not look at all insane.  He was neatly dressed, clean in appearance, gentlemanly and philosophical.  Funk stated, “I have never been insane. Do I look as if I were insane now?  I may be peculiar; what human being is not?  I am not at all responsible for the defense my lawyer set up for me in my trial.  I protested the defense.  Mr. Turner insisted that it was the only one by means of which I could escape.   “Why did you steal the books from the Public Library?”, the reporter asked.  “Well, he said, “I had a passion for books.  Even when I did not read them, I wanted to have them around me.  I thought I would want to refer to them.  The books that I took away – not stole, mind you – were works which I would have liked to read, philosophic works, books of reference, medical treatises, and the like.  I intended to return every one of them.  I am neither a thief nor a lunatic.  My failing, my peculiarity, is a passion for books.”  When the reporter asked Funk about the young girl at the University, Funk stated that they were classmates and that he thought that she looked favorably upon his advances.  He then stated that she enticed a young man to send him insulting letters.  “She was but Cressida. The young lady and her father have persecuted me.”, he stated.   He then returned to 47 West Blackhawk Street where he was given shelter by his sister-in-law, Bertha Topel.  While there he penned a lengthy letter to Dr. Kilbourne.

47 West Blackhawk Street, Chicago.  Sept. 17, 1885 – Dr. Kilbourne

Dear Sir:  Having arrived in Chicago I called upon my legal advisers and presented the following facts: 

I was sent to the Elgin Hospital the 15th of June.  The Superintendent, Dr. Kilbourne, was off on a vacation, and I did not see him until about five weeks after my arrival.  During all this time the assistant physician saw and conversed with me twice nearly every day; and on the arrival of Dr. K. I felt that I was no longer a subject for the institution and requested my discharge then or a week or two later.  I preferred this request thinking and knowing that no symptoms of insanity could be charged against me by the physician who had thus far observed me and that a period of five or six weeks was a sufficiently long time for a physician to understand a person of my state and condition.  He replied that he could not act on the opinion of his assistant, but would keep me under observation to form his own opinion.  This was reasonable enough, and I acquiesced.  But I did not see him after this for some days, and learned, in fact, that his keeping persons under observation consisted in his passing through the wards once a week and asking the patients how they feel and how they sleep.  I admit that this formality is all-sufficient in all such cases as every passer-by can recognize at a glance as insane; but no such symptoms were ever dreamed to belong to me, and in order to make out any fine points, his seeing me once a week did not amount to anything.  I spoke to him the first chance I had, and, receiving no satisfactory answer, wrote to Mr. Turner under date of July 22, and added a few pointed remarks on what the Superintendent was pleased to call “Keeping patients under observation.”  This criticism stirred the doctor to hold a lengthy conversation with me during which he asked me all about the trial and the subject thereof.  Surely, the past was of no concern to him, and I might have pretended I had forgotten all about it, or say I had no idea that I had ever done this or that.  His task evidently was whether he could detect any signs of irrationality in me in the present.  However, he speaking like a gentleman, I did not think that he would take any sinister advantage of my imparting and explaining such facts to him, and I accordingly revealed my plan of defense.  This was at the end of the sixth week.  The result of this conversation was that I resolved to give him more time and wait, accordingly, with patience three or four weeks longer.  But ever since he has been bulldozing and bullying me every week about my past troubles, and has spoken at various times about my affairs before the whole ward in such a way that could not but be offensive.  After some time I learned that my letter to Mr. Turner had appeared in THE TRIBUNE, and, furthermore, a remark of this that he did not intend to take any legal steps in the case until he received word from the Superintendent.  My remarks about this you know; you will likewise remember the note I sent you requesting that.  If you refused to express an opinion, to make a statement as to what you had observed.  All this I stated to my counsel, and furthermore, that I was told to wait two weeks longer; that the two weeks expired last Saturday; and that Sunday, when I asked for an answer to my note, you commenced bullying me and insulting me about the past, and seemed determined to press the answer from me that, if I was not insane, whether I had not deserved the penitentiary; that I was equally determined not to answer Your question in the affirmative – knowing well that it was none of your business what my opinion on matter of punishment might be, having a sovereign right to my opinion, though contrary to yours, without risking the danger of being reputed insane on that score – some people believe in capital punishment and others do not, etc.; That you seemed to imply that my imprisonment there should be prolonged, if possible, as a means of punishment; that, as far as staying in the hospital somewhat longer, I would not care much if I had not important tasks; that this was not the question at issue, however – the point being, “Where does the Superintendent get his authority to keep a person in the asylum as a means of punishment?”

Furthermore, I presented that another of his (Dr. Kilbourne’s) questions was whether, if I had determined not to take the books, I might have left them alone; that the absurdity of such a question was apparent; and that I gave you to understand that there was no such a thing as “might have been” or “might have done “  used or referred to in the sense as you did; that the very fact that I took them with a definite purpose in view, and selected them with critical care, showed that I had determined to take them; that, if I had determined not to take them, then I would not have taken them.  Well, then, where does the question of “Might” come in?  Evidently, the question should have been put thus: “Might you have determined not to take them?”  That is a proper question and quite different from the preceding, and it would lead us on to a discussion of the philosophy of cause and effect as applied to the mind.  That you did not ask this but the preceding, and that my answer was too much for an unphilosophical mind, and that, with the words, “There is something mysterious about you.”  You got up and left without giving me any answer to my note of two weeks ago; and that, as I had waited during all this time, and had delayed my letters, I sent in another note Monday and demanded an immediate answer; that no answer had come till Tuesday night, whereupon, having been already prepared for a departure, I left, in order to make arrangements personally for any steps that might be necessary to force an issue, not wishing to be longer at the mercy or caprice of one individual, if it could be avoided.  For, as far as the “Mysterious” is concerned, that has been mine own ever since I began to think philosophically, and it shall remain with me.  Some of the spies that the King of Denmark sent to sound Hamlet might have learned to play the pipe, but it would have been an art past learning to play him.  Nor would I quietly submit to be detained in the hospital for a number of years on the ground of “something mysterious.”  I said likewise that there was nothing mysterious in the party that has charge of the library, nor any evidence of insanity, yet he has been a prisoner for two and one-half years; that, if he is kept there under the imputation of being somewhat peculiar (this is my own observation), why, then Dr. K. ought to be himself a patient in the hospital instead of the Superintendent of it, for he is the most peculiar person both in his talk and his general demeanor, that I have met for a number of years; and that, if he should be regarded a fit subject for the hospital because he be easily confused if three or four things are presented to his attention at once (my own observation), why then fully one-third of the whole population, more or less, would lead a holiday life – for there are just as many unable to fix their attention sufficiently strong upon a number of subjects, to keep them distinct.  Furthermore, I presented that you desired to know what guarantee you had that I would steal no more books if I were discharged; and that, in my opinion, this part of the subject was in no sense a part of your task, nor was I obliged to give any guarantee or promise; if I did steal books again it would be done at my own risk; and that I did not believe you had any authority to retain me in the hospital in order to prevent me from stealing books.

Having satisfied my counsel – both by personal conversation with them and by presenting medical opinion – that I am no longer a subject for an insane hospital, my counsel advised me to write to you for my discharge and for my clothing and other things that I might have there.  Should you refuse to send me such discharge and make an effort to have me re-arrested you may send for me to No. 47 West Blackhawk Street.  I have made the necessary arrangements for the legal measures requisite in that case.  I was loath to take the extreme course I did, but was compelled to do so in justice to myself, and should I be constrained to a still more disagreeable course I shall not shrink from it but pursue it with vim!

Besides my shirts, underwear, etc., there is in the clothes-room a book of mine, “Conventional Lies of Our Civilization”; under the mattress of the bed I occupied is a necktie, and in that room a pair of slippers; there is also a book and a few other things in the store-room, all of which things I desire to be sent to the above-named address.

Yours very truly,          

 J.A. Talbot

N.B.  – The letters which I delivered for mailing Tuesday, if they have not been forwarded, need not now be sent.

Funk Heads to Harvard University

Harvard Divinity School Library, Library of Congress Photograph Collection

Otto Funk had no plans to return to the Elgin Hospital.  Funk headed to New York with money given to him by his attorney. The authorities in Chicago made no attempt to retrieve him and realistically were, more than likely, relieved to have been rid of him. 

The Harvard Divinity School had recently opened, and Funk applied for and received a scholarship to attend.  He had used the same documents from prominent Chicago citizens that helped him secure employment with the Chicago Public Library years earlier but had fraudulently changed the dates on the documents from 1883 to 1885.

Funk wrote letters to his attorney back in Chicago informing him of his situation and whereabouts.

Please Destroy This Letter, So The Papers Don’t Get Hold of It.

25 Divinity Hall, Cambridge, Mass., Oct. 17—

Dear Mr. Turner:

You will probably be surprised to receive a letter from me from this place.  But such is the fact. I am here and enrolled as a member of Harvard Divinity School, receiving this year a scholarship of $250 to pay my expenses and tuition. Tuition amounts to $50 and room-rent to the same amount so that there is $150 for board, fuel, etc. This will require pinching economy, especially since I have to spend a few dollars for books and bed-clothing.  But then, for the present, I am safe and hope to earn a few dollars outside after a little time.

But you will ask, what considerations induced me to take this step, and what are my plans?  Well, I came to New York, and within a few days I saw that I could get work of any kind on the spur of the moment.  I had no money to live and therefore had to risk something. 

Two years ago, before I entered the Chicago Medical College, I contemplated going to Harvard College.  I still had at this time five or six letters of introduction from a Unitarian minister in Chicago to the Dean and other members of the faculty of the Divinity School.  I therefore pawned my watch in New York for $10 and set out for Boston and Cambridge.

Having arrived here, I found to my dismay that the Dean with whom I had corresponded two years ago and who had promised me $300 was in Europe.  But, then, I had a letter to Prof. Peabody, the present acting Dean, so I proceeded to him.  I represented to him that I had two years ago corresponded with the Dean about my entering the Divinity School and explained to him in my own way the cause of this long delay.  Fortunately my correspondence with the Dean was found, together with letters written by Prof. Bastin [Professor Edson Sewell Bastin of the Chicago University] and by this minister alluded to[Minister George Batchelor of the Unity Church, Chicago].  This made the way smooth, and as a good scholar, I was awarded the scholarship of $250.  This is $50 less than I had been promised two years ago; but I must be content – it helps my present need and may smooth the way for the future.

As to my plans, I may say this:  if I succeed in going through this special course of study I may either devote my attention to the ministry or to teaching, or, if I should so decide and secure means, to take another course in medicine and complete my medical studies.  All these studies are not in vain:  they are valuable in themselves and sources of enjoyment to me.

However, I must calculate on a contingency;  it is possible that I may not get the scholarship next year.  Therefore my aim shall be now to find some sufficient means of income for next year.  But if nothing satisfactory shall present itself I shall probably find it easy next June to enter the United States Signal Service.  College graduates are accepted into the service and regarded in the grade of engineers.  Considering this contingency I am reviewing my mathematics.  Besides, if I study one year at this school and then find it necessary to leave I can get the degree of A.M. from Harvard.  Thus, although I would rather have finished my medical course or earned some money, taking all things into account I did the best thing possible under the circumstances.

Now I have a request to make.  Please see that Dr. Kilbourne sends the underwear and books which I had at Elgin.  If he has sent them drop a note to my sister, Bertha Topel, No. 47 West Blackhawk Street, to get them from you.  I shall instruct her to send me those, together with a few other things.

Here is a matter of greater importance – namely:  I had a certificate from the Chicago Medical College of my attendance and of the studies I passed.  I thought I had it in my trunk but it is not there; it must be among my papers in my little desk or in one of two boxes.  Could you get a boy who can read to go and look for any papers relating to that college?  I want that certificate and, if possible, 600 hospital cards.  Perhaps you can get a boy to do this for .50 cents.  I shall herewith send instruction to my sister to pay that amount and indicate to her what boxes and papers I wish looked through.  If this matter be delayed, I may lose those papers, and they may be of great service to me next year, or even now, as I wish to get work in a physician’s office after my college hours.  Should they be found send me them.

In addition, I ask a small sacrifice on your part – namely:  I am in pressing need for a Latin, Greek, and German dictionary.  I hope the fact you have paid my fare to New York will not predispose you to refuse to send me them.  The rest of the books I shall redeem later.  I do not know exactly how much you paid for the ticket, but it may have been $11.  Five dollars you allowed me; this would leave $9 as a balance.  Of course that is a big sum in my present situation:  my fall was very great.  Would you consider the following question too “cheeky”? – namely;  Will you send me those books if I send you $3?

Please write to me soon and tell me also whether anything new appeared in the papers, or whether anything was heard from Dr. Kilbourne.  Give my best regards to Mr. Buttner and Dr. Clevenger.

Yours very truly,

J.A. Talbot

25 Divinity Hall, Cambridge, Mass.

The End of Otto Funk

Funk was transported to the jail at the Brattle Court Police Station in Cambridge where he spent the night.  He seemed to be in decent spirits given his situation and had been checked on several times by the jail watchman and by Captain Thomas Lucy. 

The next morning, October 30, 1885, a jail watchman entered Funk’s cell to find him not breathing and without a heartbeat.  His body was still warm.  His body was transported to the offices of H.D. Litchfield, the Cambridge City Undertaker and the Medical Examiner determined his death was a suicide caused by taking a fatal dose of morphine which had been concealed within a secret sewn-in compartment in his vest.   On the package of poison was an inscription that was dated Oct. 10, 1884, and read, “Alexander the Great, always looking to his fate, carried poison concealed on his person.”

Also contained in his clothing was a note written on blue paper which read, “Mr. Peabody:  Will you please forward my trunk to my sister Bertha Topel, 47 West Black Hawk Street, Chicago.  Tell her what has happened.”  The Mr. Peabody that Funk was referring to was Professor of Theology Francis Greenwood Peabody of the Harvard Divinity School.

The Gates of the Old Cambridge Cemetery where Funk is buried in an unmarked grave as John Talbut

It was obvious that Funk had planned for this type of contingency in case he ever faced incarceration in either prison or another asylum.

The authorities in Chicago learned of Funk’s death through the Cambridge Police Chief and sent an officer to the house of Anton Funk, Otto’s Father, at 666 Dickson Street.  As the officer explained the circumstances of Funk’s death, there was absolutely no emotion on the 75-year-old man’s face.  The only words spoken by the elder Funk was, “Well, what can I do about it?”

Bertha Topel, Otto’s sister, was also notified at 47 West Blackhawk.  She initially received the news very calmly but then started to break down.  She sobbed, “We did all we could for him when he was here.  The first time he was arrested we raised over $300 to help him through.  I gave $65 and another sister $120, and we are not rich people.”

Even if the family wanted to, they couldn’t afford to take custody of Funk’s body and he was given a pauper’s burial at the Cambridge City Cemetery.  He was buried under his alias of John A. Talbot in an unmarked grave and pretty much lost to history until now.

Anton Funk died almost two years after his son on October 24, 1887 and was buried in a term grave in the “Polish Cemetery” now known as St. Adalbert’s Cemetery in Niles, IL.  His daughters Bertha Topel and Frances Kortas joined him after their deaths and daughter Agnes Dudzik was laid to rest at All Saints.